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By Jeremy Mathews | May 17, 2004

Check out Jeremy’s previous reports as he braves the 2004 Cannes Film Festival>>>

Not quite halfway into the Cannes Film Festival, speculation continues as to which film the unpredictable jury will select from 19 in competition to receive the Palm d’Or. With Quentin Tarantino, the man who defines hip, presiding over a jury that includes Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, no elitism is expected. This means films like “Old Boy,” which combines action, mystery and existentialism, can’t be counted out of the running.

Even with its weaknesses, Korean director Park Chan-wook’s nightmarish tale of revenge gone awry reveals a director in full control of his craft, using split-screen images, deliberate composition and lighting and surreal special effects. It begins with an engaging handheld scene in which Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is fall-down drunk in a police station, harassing the officers as his friend arrives and tries to pick him up. While they head home, his friend loses track of him at a pay phone.

The next thing he knows, he’s locked in a cell that looks like a standard hotel room. Not knowing what he’s done or for how long he’ll be trapped, Dae-su receives food through a slot in his door from faceless and voiceless attendants. The film flashes through 15 years, to when they finally free him after spending a large part of his life watching TV and trying to tunnel through the wall with chopsticks.

The film is the second in a trilogy of revenge-themed films that Park is working on, and it delivers on the topic from multiple perspectives. Not only does the hero want vengeance for his imprisonment, he wants to know why it occurred—what did he do to deserve such a horrific retribution? While the conflict creates some of the film’s most intriguing qualities, the twists and turns in the quest for truth become tedious at times.

The fight scenes (Dae-su trained himself into a master fighter by punching the wall while in prison) and revenge tale make the film look like something Tarantino would like, but there are more films coming that could fit his taste. And you can’t always guess a jury’s verdict based on its president, especially after the press conference on Wednesday, in which Tarantino and jury member Tilda Swinton disagreed on the value of art films. Of course, Tarantino being Tarantino, the whole conflict could have been staged.

Agnes Jaoui’s “Comme une Image” (“Look at Me”) probably won’t win any major awards, but it has much of the same humor, charm and understanding of humanity as her debut film, “The Taste of Others.” Like that film, it weaves through the lives of several connected characters. The young woman, Lolita (Marilou Berry), is angry at the world because she doesn’t look like the mass media’s image of beauty and the boy she has a crush on sends her “mixed,” or nonexistent, signals. Her father (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is an arrogant famous author, married to a standard beauty nearer Lolita’s age than his own.

When people are nice to Lolita, she assumes that it’s because of her father’s fame. She doesn’t have any direction in life, but her latest career plan is to be a singer, and she is taking opera lessons to prepare for a concert. Her teacher’s (Jaoui) husband is a struggling writer, and eventually finds success while he loses focus on the rest of his life.

Jaoui has a knack for the uncomfortable moments of human interaction—awkward silences, abandoned sentences, trying to speak with a crying teenager. She has an ability to juggle characters and give them each arcs, and her humor is unique and observational.

The most disappointing film in competition so far has been “La Niña Santa,” by Argentinean director Lucretia Martel. Set in a hotel in La Cineaga, the film muddles through obvious religious references as two 16-year-old girls go to choir practice and learn about finding their vocation. Meanwhile, a medical convention is at the hotel owned by one of the girls’ parents. Amalia and her divorced mother live at the hotel, and both mother and daughter become obsessed with one of the doctors in attendance.

Since they’re ear doctors, Martel uses a lot of shots of people’s ears, sometimes setting the focal depth at someone’s ear instead of the main character. While it looks interesting, only the most patient filmgoers will be able to put up with the aimless story, which has constant recitations of prayers in order to make up for poor storytelling.

It’s often refreshing when films like “Limbo” end at unconventional moments, making it apparent what the story and characters are really about. “La Niña Santa,” however, doesn’t manage to be about anything, then ends when it looks like something interesting might happen.

The festival goers’ anticipation is currently on Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911” which is premiering with only one public screening and two simultaneous press screenings in two theaters. Depending on who you talk to, this is either poor planning on the festival’s part or an elitist effort to stop people from seeing the most talked about film of the festival. After it premieres, there will be even more talk.
Keep checking back for even more Cannes Film Festival 2004 coverage. Until then, let’s hear some Back Talk>>>

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